In 1831, when the aristocratic Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville arrived in America, he began to record the impressions that would become the pivotal and acclaimed work Democracy in America.
Tocqueville wrote, "Amongst the novel objects that attracted my attention during my stay in the United States, nothing struck me more forcibly than the general equality of conditions." Everywhere, people shook hands with each other as though there were no social distinctions. He was especially amazed by the town meetings in New England, where everyone seemed to speak out on every topic.
A key difference between American and French society sprang from America's respect for the working man: the importance of voluntary associations rather than the state. Tocqueville wrote,
Americans of all ages, all conditions, and all dispositions, constantly form associations. They have not only commercial and manufacturing companies, in which all take part, but associations of a thousand other kinds — religious, moral, serious, futile, extensive or restricted, enormous or diminutive.
If a barn needed to be raised, a school roof repaired, or a social cause advanced, then people banded together — and the work was done. Tocqueville concluded, "Wherever, at the head of some new undertaking, you see the government in France … in the United States you will be sure to find an association."